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ZZ Top brings the beards back to the Badger State for two shows, one at the Washington County Fair and other at the Riverside Theater. (PHOTO: Ross Halfin)

ZZ Top brings the beard back to Milwaukee for two shows

"To us, it doesn't matter if it's one or 100,000; we just get out there and turn it out and rock out."

That's how ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons described playing all sizes and kinds of gigs over the band's illustrious 40-plus-year history during a recent e-mail interview with He isn't exaggerating with the numbers either; they've played for anywhere from a single person in attendance to large festivals full of fans.

Milwaukee and Wisconsin has hosted its fair share of shows in between that spectrum including a number of Summerfest gigs. ZZ Top will be back not once but twice this year to play two different kinds of shows: July 26 at the Washington County Fair in West Bend and Oct. 7 to play Milwaukee's Riverside Theater.

In 1969, Gibbons formed the band with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, two musicians that shared his musical interests of rock, blues and boogie. All these years later, they're still at it, and while their album output has slowed (two years ago releasing the Rick Rubin produced "La Futura"), they still get excited with their music's possibilities. A new compilation entitled "The Very Baddest of ZZ Top" coming out July 22 features a career spanning selection of songs from the band's time with London Records (1971-76), Warner Brothers (1979-90) and RCA (1994-2003).

Prior to the band's return to the Badger State, I asked Gibbons some questions about what keeps them going, making new music and how he keeps his trademark beard intact. What is your favorite music and non-music memory of playing southeast Wisconsin? How does playing in Wisconsin now compare with when you first started playing?

Billy Gibbons: We played Summerfest a few times, and that's always been a blast. Not sure how it's all that different since we're seeing the same people in the audience except they're propagated over the years so the age range is broader and we certainly like that.

OMC: You've frequently played some of the bigger festivals in Wisconsin like Summerfest. What do you think about playing something different/smaller like the Washington County Fair? Does it give you more freedom in what you can do?

BG: Back when we first started, we went to a date that I suppose you could say was "under promoted." In fact, there was exactly one ticket holder, but we did our entire show for him and bought him a Coke to boot. To us, it doesn't matter if it's one or 100,000; we just get out there and turn it out and rock out. The bottom line is we have a good time doing what we do, and the audience reflects that back on us, irrespective of size.

OMC: Over the years, the band's taken what some might consider risks with experimenting with the sound, like adding synthesizers and adding new styles. What was the most satisfying "risk" for you and why?

BG: It wasn't as much of a "risk" for us as it was embracing what technology had to offer. We like to cite a parallel from earlier days when Muddy Waters "discovered" electricity and went from being a country bluesman to an urban, electric blues man. Our guess is he would have plugged in earlier if his shack had been wired, but he certainly wasn't averse to advances in technology when they were made available to him, and it's the same for us. "By all and any means" is how we like to get it over.

OMC: With the album output slowing down in recent years, how do you try to keep setlists interesting and not too repetitive? What's your ideal balance of hits versus deeper cuts, and does venue play into it?

BG: We did have a new one out in recently years, "La Futura," and have added quite a few of the songs from that into our setlist but, at the same time, we go waaaay back and perform stuff from our first album, cleverly titled "ZZ Top's First Album," and even some older stuff that you would never have heard even if you had all our releases. We try to keep it interesting and fun. That's a formula for fun.

OMC: Two years ago the band released "La Futura" with the help of Rick Rubin, who has a bit of a reputation lately for breathing new life into artists. How did he help ZZ Top in wanting to get back in the studio? How do you think it fits into the overall scope of the band's catalog?

BG: He made us be "the best ZZ Top we can be" by urging us to improve on what we thought was pretty darn good. He was, inevitably, right, and the result of his encouragement is right there in the grooves.

OMC: The band has the distinction of having the same members for its existence. What keeps you interested in playing with these guys?

BG: Mentioned this earlier: We like to have a good time, and we have fun touring, performing and recording so I have never seen a compelling reason to do otherwise over the course of the past four-plus decades. Of course, most bands break up, but they do tend to get back together. If you like, you can think of the last 20 or so years as our "reunion tour."

OMC: What kind of gear are you using now, and how does it compare with what you've used in the past?

BG: There's a lot more choice in terms of amplification, effects, etc., but we keep going back to the equipment that has served us well in the past. In fact, we favor the Magnatone amps which have now been put back into production – sometimes the old school stuff is what you need to get it across in the current day.

OMC: How do you manage to keep your beard maintained after all these years? Does it get trickier?

BG: We just try to treat it with the kindness it deserves after all these years of dedicated service. Wash, condition, pat dry and pamper is how it goes.


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